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Pharmaceutical Companies Accused of 'Disease-Mongering'

Teresa Smith
December 15, 2008

When it comes to ordinary maladies, if you name it they will come

New terms for familiar ailments can result in more people seeking medication, says a study released Monday by researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The study looked at the effect of using impressive-sounding medical terms for common conditions.

Someone who is told she has hyperhidrosis, for instance, may be more concerned than if her doctor calls it excessive perspiration. Similarly, pityriasis capitis sounds a lot scarier than dandruff.

Co-author Meredith Young says that conditions previously considered to be on the fringes of normal health, or associated with the normal aging process, are becoming seen as diseases that need to be treated.

Young, a graduate student, says this may be a direct result of what some medical professionals refer to as "disease-mongering," accusing pharmaceutical companies of creating new diseases in order to sell drugs. For example, if someone who may be going bald is convinced that he has a disease called androgenic alopecia, he may be more likely to seek a drug to treat it.

"Medicalese is used a lot in drug advertising and the increase in the use of this language seems to co-occur with the release of drugs to treat the condition," said Young.

The study was limited to so-called "lifestyle drugs" -- medications that Young says aren't life-saving, but can contribute to the user's quality of life. [Take the side-effects into consideration and the dependency the drugs create and these drugs are a profit centre for the pharmaceutical industry. Every drug has side effects and when a user experiences some of the side effects, the medical doctor prescribes another drug in an attempt to get rid of the side effects. Once the patient is on the second drug, the cycle continues.]

Fifty-two undergraduate students at McMaster rated both the medical term and the more common label for recently medicalized disorders -- such as erectile dysfunction disorder versus impotence -- and established medical conditions -- such as a myocardial infarction versus heart attack.

Participants were asked which name represented a more serious condition. The study found that established diseases seem just as serious regardless of the name used, and that conditions with newly medicalized names made participants more nervous when called by their scientific name.

Dr. Barry Slapcoff, a family doctor in Montreal, says he has seen an increase in the number of people coming in to ask about lifestyle diseases, rather than medical diseases. [Are there better ways to improve a person's lifestyle other than taking chemical drugs? ]

He says patients more frequently come in with questions about particular conditions and specific drugs used to treat them.

"A reality of practising medicine is that people will come in asking about what they've seen on TV," he said.

In the past 10 years, he added, with the increase of advertising using the term "erectile dysfunction," there has been a direct correlation with the number of patients asking about drugs like Viagra and Cialis to treat it.

But according to Karin Humphreys, a co-author of the McMaster study, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"By using a different term, people may feel more empowered to do something proactive about their health."

Slapcoff agrees that self-diagnosis can be helpful.

"If people are worried about their health, they should feel comfortable talking to their doctor about it. I want my patients to feel empowered."

Young says it all has to do with familiarity.

"It's important to understand that the language we use has an effect."

She hopes this study will be used positively to promote an open doctor-patient relationship. [If a doctor prescribes drugs for your condition/illness/disease without offering alternatives, stay away from that medical doctor (MD) and see a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) instead. Drugs and surgery are not the only answer. Medical Doctors (MDs) are taught to use drugs and surgery for every problem. They are not bad people, but that was what they were taught when they went to medical school.]